So long spaghetti and meatballs. At long last Italy is enjoying a gastronomic renaissance. Thanks to chefs like Bottura, but also to a challenge successfully met: innovating tradition.
Forget spaghetti and meatballs. Forget those scenes from Big Night with Stanley Tucci in front of a Sicilian timballo of pasta and aubergines. These dishes haven’t disappeared of course. But ever since the evening of 13 June 2016 in New York, when Massimo Bottura pronounced a tearful “Thank you Italy” while waving a scarf in the Italian national colours at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, Italian food has meant something else. The cook from Modena with his bright eyes and impeccable English had been named the world’s best chef. And we all witnessed the consecration of something we already knew (even if we lacked the courage to say it out loud): Italian food is the best. It leads by example. And it’s changing.
Call it the new Italian way. This is no soundbite, it’s a way of life. And a way of eating. Especially abroad. Because here in Italy, we take it for granted… A plate of spaghetti with clams, what’s the big fuss? And yet… For all its simplicity, this can be a complex dish where chemistry and skill make all the difference. But try telling that a few years ago to a British tourist armed with a Baedeker on the Amalfi Coast, a firm believer in the theorem: spaghetti is spaghetti. You would have had trouble convincing them that spaghetti can be and become something else. A dish that evolves, finds new forms of expression and eating. And is a page of history that has been retrieved and rewritten, in a (happy) reworking that opens the doors to the future.
Italy is perfect in this respect. Its good fortune in having outstanding raw materials secured its success around the world. Stigmatising an excellence that would inspire many food stars.
Jamie Oliver, for example, turned it into a trademark. Starting in the kitchens of Antonio Carluccio, he quickly learned the tricks of Italian cooking and went on to explain them in a simple style to millions of British TV viewers from the screens of the BBC. A similar path was followed by Nigella Lawson, who used her seductive voice and teasing glances to show on TV, and in her best-selling books, how lasagne can be a powerful driver of marital bliss. Meanwhile, Bolognese food was being explained to the Americans by the Simili sisters: Margherita and Valeria, who, at the age of 60+, found themselves travelling the world to reveal the secrets of hand-rolled pasta and good food from the region of Emilia, and ended up on the front page of The New York Times. We have always been a point of reference in people’s gastronomic development in English-speaking countries. Personalities like Anna del Conte (in the UK) and Marcella Hazan (in the USA) have unveiled the secrets of our recipes to entire generations, becoming true icons of Italian cooking. They patiently explained why Italian-style spaghetti is not served with meatballs (no...). And that pasta should be cooked al dente. And that extra virgin olive oil is better than margarine. They even quarrelled about a risotto, with Marcella Hazan telling chef Mario Batali: «Use a saucepan, not a frying pan! That’s the way the Italians make it».
But now the world’s idea about what we eat has been brought up to date. Just take a look at the shelves of any bookstore in London: at least 50 per cent are devoted to the new Italian cuisine. Which seems to have lost its old-style look to freshen up and move from the splendours of Hazan&co to those of Bottura and his followers.
But now the world’s idea about what we eat has been brought up to date. Just take a look at the shelves of any bookstore in London: at least 50 per cent are devoted to the new Italian cuisine. Which seems to have lost its old-style look to freshen up and move from the splendours of Hazan&co to those of Bottura and his followers. Everyone wants to eat Italian. And traditional dishes are almost fashionable. Octopus assigned Eleonora Galasso to conduct a report in collaboration with the safe (photographic) hands of David Loftus, which became the mouth-watering book As the Romans do. Katie Parla, contributor from Italy for the NYT, has written a highly lauded book about Roman cooking, Tasting Rome. From her flat in the city’s Testaccio district, food writer Rachel Roddy tells Guardian readers about daily life in her kitchen (and her articles have been turned into a wonderful book on culinary neorealism, A Kitchen in Rome).
In other words, things are slowly changing (for the better). But the first person to report on the new developments was Jane Kramer, in The New Yorker. In a portrait of Massimo Bottura, Kramer told American readers about what was happening in Italian food. How the words “Italy” and “new gastronomy” were still an oxymoron in 1995 when Bottura began his experiments at the Osteria Francescana.
When he decided to deconstruct his grandmother’s pasta and beans; to synthesise bollito; to create a modern version of the tortellino. Kramer writes: «Bottura gets emotional thinking about food… and put Italy on the map for the kind of travellers who prefer to eat their spaghetti and meatballs at home».
She was the first to sum up Bottura’s philosophy. The philosophy that would pave the way for Italy’s gastronomic renaissance: accompanied but not bound by tradition. A slow decontamination from the dictates of a past that slowed down development in cooking, tethering it to provinciality. Too often this has turned Italian gastronomy into a mass of famous recipes that, apart from a few great names of the past such as Artusi, never managed to come together in a united heritage. Carbonara is carbonara. But then you’ll find a thousand versions of it. And a thousand arguments. Above all, it will be labelled as home cooking, and therefore not on a par with great cuisine.
Luckily, that’s not all there is now. Although the real challenge is innovating Tradition. In the knowledge that the more deeply rooted the tradition, the greater the difficulty of experimenting. Because we run the risk of betraying our grandmothers’ gastronomic cultural legacy. That legacy of empirical culinary expertise, which had no need of weights and measures. That quantum satis, which guided hands covered in flour, ladles stirring meat sauces as they cooked (sometimes all night long), freshly made pasta stretched with a rolling pin that was always to hand. This valuable legacy should be led gently into the future. Into Italian cuisine 3.0, where old flavours now (also) speak a different language. A future where great chefs can enjoy the luxury of recreating old dishes such as rice and cabbage or a potato gattò and giving them new life. And where, thanks to the long wave that surrounds Italian cooking abroad, tourists are tempted to sit down for a meal whose common thread is tradition, but where present and future are illustrated by dishes that also celebrate research and experimentation. Where our cooks are granted the freedom to create. At last.